In case you were wondering, getting a Ph.D. while raising 4 kids is hard. Really hard.
That probably should have been obvious to me going into it, but if life was a salad bar, my plate is always a little bit overflowing. And the truth is, that’s how I prefer it. (And incidentally, that’s also how my plate inevitably comes out when I go through an actual salad bar.)
I’ve got a lot of things that I want out of life. I want to be a present mother who is a major part of her kids’ lives and has a meaningful connection with each of them.
I want time with my husband each day to talk and connect. I treasure our weekly date nights and I just love spending time with him.
I want to have good friendships and spend time going to lunch or going for walks with good friends.
I want to build connection with my neighbors and serve them (which in my life usually means baking them cookies).
I want to keep my body (and mind) healthy by going to the gym regularly.
I want to make time for spirituality in my life every day.
And I want to be in graduate school. I started graduate school because I knew I wanted to stretch myself and do things that felt really meaningful once my kids were all in school. And I will never regret that decision. It’s been incredible.
But back to my first point, it’s HARD to try to have all of these salad bar fixings (or competing priorities) on my plate at one time.
My husband and I keep having conversations about how we can better handle all of the competing demands of him working, me in school, and the busy lives of our kids. And reality is, there’s not a clear-cut solution.
It’s a really complicated balance and sometimes I feel like a hypocrite when the words I’m saying to other people and the research I’m doing are about claiming your own desires, not letting your own needs and dreams be the things that get pushed to the back burner when I don’t actually feel like that’s an easy thing to do—at all.
Even if you’re not in the same situation that I’m in, you’re probably in a challenging one too. All of us have to balance competing needs (of kids, spouses, coworkers, family) that pressure us every single day.
This wasn’t really easier when my kids were all little and constantly needing time and attention—diaper changes, lunches made, messes picked up, you know the drill.
I know people feel this at work too. Everyone’s got a demand on your time and wants a piece of you for one reason or another and then you come home and there are plenty of other things to attend to there as well.
And there’s no easy solution. It is challenging to “balance” the many demands on us in this life.
How to Find that “Balance” in a Busy Life
As this challenge of dealing with all of these competing priorities was rearing its ugly head in a big way for me recently, I reflected on a few things that help me out when I get bogged down in this challenge that might help you too. (Though I want to be clear that this is an ongoing struggle for me too.)
Lesson #1: There’s No Such Thing as Balance
Eek! Did I just say that on a post about finding balance?
I went to a conference a few years ago for women and one session was about how to find work-life balance. I remember one of the women making this statement, that there’s no such thing as “balance,” and it really struck me.
Basically, what she was saying is that some days you wake up and something that your child needs is really pressing and that’s the thing you need to see to.
The next day, it might be that you really need to care for yourself—to rest or to go to the gym or to accomplish something that you’ve been trying to get to. And then another day it might be something else.
You’re never going to get it all done on any given day. The important thing is to figure out which of your competing priorities matters in that moment.
This reminds me of the story of Mary and Martha in the Bible. Martha was busily cooking or cleaning or generally prepping for having a guest in their home. Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet talking with him and learning from him. Jesus said to them “one thing is needful and Mary hath chosen that good part.” Mary was able to figure out, in that moment, what her top priority was. Maybe that wouldn’t be the same for her the next day because reality is that the things Martha was doing were probably things that have to be done sometimes.
The trick is figuring out what matters in that moment.
So rather than trying to figure out how to do all the things all the time, it can be helpful to figure out what is most important RIGHT NOW.
Lesson #2: Discomfort is Normal
Life is tricky and hard. That’s not going to go away. I love what Dr. David Schnarch taught—you’re always going to have challenges and discomfort in life—that’s just part of being human. But it’s your choice if you stay stagnant in that discomfort or if you grow in the midst of all that. When you choose the things that will help you grow into who you want to be, it’s not easy. But that growth feels worth it.
I could choose to not be in graduate school right now and that might ease some of my current burden. But reality is that I would still find other things that are challenging and hard in my life. Not doing things to grow myself could cause me angst in other ways.
As it stands, I am doing something that I know is right for me and for my family right now, so even though it also brings challenge and discomfort, it’s worth it. In this case, I choose the thing that is hard (remembering that it’s all hard) that helps me grow and feels meaningful to me.
This will, of course, look very different for you than it does for me. But don’t shy away from things that are challenging just because they are challenging. It’s all challenging. Hopefully not every moment of every day is rough for you. Hopefully you find plenty of joy in the journey too, but it’s ok if it’s not all roses and sunshine all the time.
Just remember that the things that matter to you are worth a little extra effort.
Lesson #3: Own Your Choices
It also helps me when I can remember that I need to have ownership of my choices. This week my kids had a day off from school (which seems to be happening endlessly right now—one of them had last Friday off too). And so, I spent the day doing things with and for them. I took one of them fishing, I went to the gym with another, I gave haircuts to two of them. Basically, my day was filled with kid stuff. And I was so glad to get that time with my kids.
But at the same time, I have a long list of things I want to get done relating to my Ph.D. and my creation of a new course (launching May 23rd on this site!) that just didn’t happen that day. And truthfully, these things often get pushed to the back burner in favor of caring for my kids.
And sometimes that feels frustrating, and I feel resentment.
But reality is, I could have prioritized other things that day and said, “nope, I can’t drive you to the river to fish. I’ve got to work.” And that could have been fine if it’s what felt most important to me. But as a mother, I personally value being an active part of my kids’ lives and I chose to spend that day with them. (Again, this might be different for each of us. My experience does not necessarily relate to your experience. The point is just to own your choices.)
I also chose to go to graduate school and to try to develop an online course and website and things. And this makes my life busier than it might otherwise be.
If I can remember that my own choices are what are sometimes bringing me stress, and if I can take ownership of those choices rather than placing blame or trying to pass my stress on to someone else (more about that in this post on emotional fusion), that brings me back to reality and helps me get through the tougher times. I chose what I am doing and even though it’s hard, it’s mine.
So, if you’re like me and trying to play the balancing act of life or walking through that salad bar and sometimes feeling like your plate is just a little bit full with competing priorities, maybe these lessons that helped me will help you too. Remember, balance may be an illusion. Just do what is needful right now. Remember that growth is challenging but that’s a great thing! And that you get to own the choices you make in life. None of these are a magic bullet that makes life all of a sudden easy, but they can help you on your beautiful and complicated journey.